Priest halts Mass to take calls from African migrants on sinking boats in Mediterranean

Tue 25 Aug 2015
By Hannah Tooley

A priest in Switzerland has set up a special SOS network to take calls and find the location of people crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

Father Mussie Zerai, 40, originally from Eritrea himself, left for Europe when he was 16 years old.

He became a priest in 2010 and has taken hundreds of distress calls in the last 12 years, after an African radio station gave out his phone number.

"Sometimes yes, I receive some distress call during the Mass. I say to the people I need to answer because it is an emergency," said Fr Zerai on Premier's News Hour.

"So I stop my Mass, I give answer; that is because we're talking about human being's life."

Father Zerai then passes on their location to the Italian coastguard. 

Father Mussie Zerai

Father Mussie Zerai

According to the Times he said: "I was halting Masses to receive calls from boats.

"It's horrific to hear people shouting that they are dying.

"The best I can do is clam them and explain how to use the GPS function on their phone so they can give me their location."

He is taking on 30 volunteers who speak five languages and can take calls in shifts.

Over the weekend his team took calls from six boats as around 4,400 people crossed the sea.

Father Zerai said: "Since I started this about 5,000 Eritreans have drowned."

He added that the worst calls come from Eritreans being held hostage in the Sinai desert: "They were screaming because traffickers were dripping molten plastic on their skin and burning them with hot irons to get more money."

He often takes calls from families seeking news of relatives who left from Libya but had not arrived in Europe.

"Survivors tell me it is better to die quickly in search of freedom than die slowly in Eritrea, but after growing up with the dream of independence it is devastating to watch my countrymen perishing in jails, in the desert and at sea."

Listen to Father Zerai speaking to Premier's Antony Bushfield on the News Hour: 

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